Twice a year for the last several years, sculptor Vernon Willits has made the trip from his home in Davenport, Iowa, to the Judy Saslow Gallery on Superior Street. He drives the 180 miles in a pickup truck loaded with artwork.
Saslow is one of the city's top dealers in outsider art, the popular term for work created by self-taught artists. Few cities have as many passionate collectors of outsider art as Chicago.
Arriving in River North, Willits carefully unloads the art. The welded metal sculptures--assembled from crude, scavenged materials (not without a rough-hewn charm)--take the form of humans or animals. They're documented and priced in Saslow's gallery. Depending on their size and level of craftsmanship, the pieces generally fetch from $350 to $1,800. After a consignment contract is drawn up, Willits heads back to Iowa.
The artwork was made by someone named Clyde Angel. Willits is the artist's middleman or, in Saslow's words, "authorized agent." Angel has been described as an "Iowa highway wanderer," a hobo with no permanent address who collects scrap metal along the road to make his art. Little is known of Angel's past, but in letters he has referred to being institutionalized. He shuns the spotlight, choosing to live alone in the woods. A welder, the story goes, showed him how to use a blowtorch and lets him work in a shop. Angel deals directly only with Willits.
Saslow is a fan of Angel's sculptures, and so are her customers. "People are responding very well to a variety of his works, and I'm delighted," she says. "He's been one of our more popular artists." So popular that Saslow gave Angel his first one-man show in the fall of 1997, a year after she became his exclusive midwest dealer. She regularly displays his work in group exhibits as well as at the annual Outsider Art Fair in New York. Three works by Angel are included in "Outsider and Folk Art From Chicago Collections," a 154-piece exhibit currently at the Terra Museum of American Art. The show is a slimmed-down version of a 1998 exhibit put together by the Halle Saint Pierre in Paris. Of the 50 artists in the show Angel is the only one listed as "homeless."
Saslow first saw Angel's sculptures in the homes of collectors in the early 90s, shortly after the work went on the market. "I've always loved rusted metal as an artistic element, and when I saw such absolutely precious work I was delighted and fascinated," she says. "Some of our very avid collectors will go far and wide to find something unusual and fascinating, and he would certainly fit into that." Why have collectors found his work appealing? "It's clever, and it's got humor," she says. "There's a clever, creative use of materials. People marvel at the detail of the work. They like the idea that he's using discarded materials, making treasures from trash."
Last spring, Willits brought another batch of sculptures to Saslow's gallery. An exhibit that opened in early June featured 22 Angel pieces, including several from the gallery's collection, as well as drawings by Gene Merritt. As usual, the sculptures were fashioned from flattened tin cans, steel scraps, and other found metal. Cans were cut open and rolled flat into appendages. The figures' heads, torsos, arms, and legs were proficiently welded together into doll-like personages. Some works incorporated mystical, often misspelled messages. They had jaunty titles, such as Manito of the Wampun, Puppet Clown, Burning Head, Bugler, Jane Fontaine, Rust Man, Brut for Men, and Gramma Clara.
These sculptures were more colorful than Angel's previous work. He left the labels on many of the cans, for such products as coffee, crackers, cookies, egg nog, peanuts, tomato sauce, hearts of palm. A few of the works were painted. The more expensive ones had words and symbols torched through the steel. There were several freestanding pieces, including Linda With No Legs, an elaborate steel figure set on a wood pallet with wheels and a pull chain, priced at $1,500. The assemblage was decorated by a hand-lettered poem: "I saw her on the sidewalk. She was begging for release. Her brown hair was blowing in the breeze. People walked above her just like she was not there." Whatever Angel's state of mind and living situation, he seemed to be evolving as an artist.
The show, Saslow says, "sold very well." She periodically sends Willits checks payable to Angel, with the artist receiving "more than half" of the proceeds from sales. In a phone conversation, the low-key Willits told me he helps Angel with financial affairs but declined to elaborate. He said I couldn't talk to the artist--Angel had always refused to meet reporters. Willits was bound to honor his wishes.
Artists have long had business agents, but in the outsider art field the agent carries an added burden. Many outsider artists live on society's margins, either by choice or necessity. Many come from rural areas and have experienced poverty. Some are illiterate or mentally ill. The terms "folk" and "outsider" are often used interchangeably. But compared to folk artists, outsiders make intensely personal work that owes less of a debt to tradition. The outsider art market has been a magnet for charges of exploitation, stories of agents and dealers making money off artists at a disadvantage. One well-known story involved Thornton Dial Sr., a black artist and former steelworker from Bessemer, Alabama. In the early 90s his mixed-media paintings commanded up to $90,000.
In 1993, as two exhibits of Dial's work opened simultaneously in New York museums, 60 Minutes set its sights on William Arnett, the Atlanta businessman and folk-art promoter who represents Dial. He sets the artist's prices and handles the money from sales. According to 60 Minutes, Arnett bought a house for Dial's family but retained the title to it. Arnett later called the report a "complete hoax." As he told ARTnews in 1996, "I collect art and I'm the first white person who knew about Dial. I helped to get his work out and facilitate his career." The TV story appeared to affect the market value of Dial's work. Arnett complained, "Several big museums were about to make acquisitions and canceled after the piece was aired." At a January 1996 auction, bids on a Dial painting reached only $11,000.
Saslow--who also carries work by Bill Traylor, Dwight Mackintosh, Joseph Yoakum, and other well-known folk and outsider artists--says Willits isn't exploiting Angel. If she thought Willits were "sleazy," she says, she wouldn't be doing business with him. "Our relationship so far has been a sweet, smooth one, absolutely delightful," Saslow says. "I feel the right things are being done, so I continue to have faith in him. My sense is that it's fair and square here." She's never met or talked to Angel. "What we know we get secondhand."
Bits of biographical information on Angel have appeared in several publications. No pictures of him are known to exist, though he can use a camera and made two short videos in the mid-90s. Saslow says she wouldn't know the artist if he walked through her door. She doesn't know if he's black or white. She laughs. "For all we know, he could be a woman."
A few facts can be gleaned from the scratchy, crudely poetic notes Angel sent to Sherry Pardee, an Iowa City folk-art dealer who represented him in the early 90s. The writings--on paper scraps, brown bags, memo sheets, and foil wrappers--speak of his fear of society and of being sent back to an institution. He also writes of his love for freedom, nature, travel, and making art. Many of these letters have been copied and circulated--they're valued as works of art in their own right. Some have hastily drawn self-portraits, but they don't reveal much--they're like children's drawings.
Saslow, who has received thank-you notes from Angel, thinks his behavior isn't all that unusual for an outsider artist. "It was crystal clear from the beginning that privacy was required, and it's important to honor his decision to be private," she says. "That kind of privacy comes with the territory--it's part of the deal. If you love the art, you accept the terms of that. I just try to enjoy the finished product and try not to ask any questions. If I ask too many questions, I spoil the relationship. I respect it, not just for business reasons but also because I don't want to betray any trust or confidence. It wouldn't be fair.
"Any good story has a hint of mystery," Saslow says. "It's an unusual story, but not a singular one. Clyde's singular personality is what makes the work more unusual, but the rest is none of my business."
When I first spoke to Saslow about Angel two years ago, she referred to a "middleman" or "intermediary" but she wouldn't provide a name. She took my phone number, and a few weeks later Willits called. He sent a press release with a two-paragraph description of the artist's life and two pages of the artist's writings (misspellings intact). Willits was listed as the contact for more information.
"Clyde Angel is a solitary man," begins the biographical note. "He has never volunteered where he lives or where his family is, and when pressed for information by dealers and patrons, he becomes irritated. Unable to conform to society's strictures, the artist often wanders streets, highways and rural areas for long stretches of time, 'alone in my private forest.'" The biography concludes, "Clyde is obviously well-read. From the body of his work, it appears he enjoys everything from religion to Rousseau, comics to quantum physics. Clyde's art does not merely reflect his experiences--his walks, his vast embracement of literature, his mystical visions--it validates his existence."
"If people want to see me," Angel wrote in a letter to Pardee, "see me in my art. If they want to know about me read what I write. These things are my life. Or at least all I want them to know."
Clyde Angel is not a blue-chip name in the outsider art market. He isn't even considered an up-and-comer, at least not yet. His work isn't widely shown or highly sought after. He's not in the same league as, say, Dial or Traylor, the former Alabama slave who began to draw at the age of 85 (Traylor died at 93, in 1949). Artists like Dial and Traylor--or Howard Finster, Mose Tolliver, and Martin Ramirez, to name a few others--are recognized masters whose work can sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
Status comes to outsiders by way of mainstream avenues--big museum shows, media interest, critical attention. These have all eluded Angel. He wasn't included in the celebrated 1998 survey "Self-Taught Artists of the Twentieth Century: An American Anthology." That show, which had more than 300 works by 32 artists, was organized by New York's Museum of American Folk Art and traveled to Philadelphia, Atlanta, Fort Worth, and other cities. Angel's work has been included in more limited surveys at museums in South Bend and Boca Raton, but it hasn't been acquired by the Museum of American Folk Art or the Milwaukee Art Museum, which has accumulated one of the largest folk and outsider art collections in the country.
In Chicago, Angel doesn't rank with homegrown legends Henry Darger, the hospital janitor and epic storyteller; Lee Godie, the bag lady and street sketcher; and Joseph Yoakum, who drew imaginary landscapes at God's command (Yoakum died in 1972 and had a one-man show at the Art Institute 23 years later). Angel's name doesn't come up in discussions of current outsiders, such as Mr. Imagination (Gregory Warmack), Derek Webster, and David Philpot. But Angel's presence in the city's private collections has brought him a measure of visibility: his work was not only included in the Halle Saint Pierre show in Paris but in "Outsider Art: An Exploration of Chicago Collections," a 1996 exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Angel's work hasn't received much attention in the press. Over the years he's had several write-ups in outsider art publications and exhibition catalogs. The most prominent article was the Winter 1995 cover story of "Intuit," the newsletter of the Chicago-based Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art (the publication is now a magazine called The Outsider). The organization, which runs a gallery at 756 N. Milwaukee, was formed in 1991 to promote the work of artists who, according to a brochure, "demonstrate little influence from the mainstream art world, and who instead seem motivated by their unique personal visions." A brief review of Angel's work--part of a group show at American Primitive Gallery in Manhattan--made the pages of the New York Observer in March 1994. "After a while," the review said, "there's a certain scruffy sameness to the work, but Mr. Angel is a wizard with his material."
Clyde Angel may be a little guy in the outsider art market, but his work--with a modest push from several key regional dealers--has found a steadily growing base of collectors. Represented by galleries in Chicago and New York, Angel has also captured the fancy of buyers in Atlanta, Santa Fe, and other cities. "There has been a tremendous response, an increasing number of people are interested in his work," says Aarne Anton, director of American Primitive Gallery, which has carried Angel's work since the mid-90s. "They're not just buying one piece, but a number of pieces, with an interest to continue."
Enough interest had been generated by 1996 for Angel to be included in the 181-artist encyclopedia Contemporary American Folk Art: A Collector's Guide, by Chuck and Jan Rosenak. It is perhaps Angel's biggest claim to fame and represents something of a career-validating coup. He merits a half page of text, right at the head of the midwest section, along with a color photograph of an artwork. His entry consists of a brief bio and "tips" for collectors. Of the artists still alive, he's the only one without a permanent address. "The assemblages of this artist are slightly reminiscent of the welded 'junk art' popular in mainstream art circles during the 1960s and 1970s," the Rosenaks write. "The sensibility and motivation of this artist, however, is uniquely different."
Angel likes to make money from his art, but he doesn't want publicity. He asks to be left alone to wander and create. "I dont want to meet people," Angel wrote in a letter to Pardee. "I dont have any cloths. I just want to walk. I just want to find things and not be an embarrassment. I just want to make things and have people buy them. I'm an embarrassment right now. If people buy my artwork thats the only thing thats not an embarrassment."
While publicity might bring higher prices for Angel's work, higher prices could cost him customers. Outsider art has traditionally been a low-budget field, and Angel's work, according to both Saslow and Anton, appeals to start-up collectors--they're just beginning to buy art, and they don't want to spend a lot of money. Angel's prices haven't risen appreciably for the last few years.
Notoriety might also bring the end of privacy. As Saslow cautions, there are fanatical collectors--some of them her clients--who make it a point to track down and visit every artist whose work they own. Angel's art is being marketed, but, with the help of Willits, he's avoided anyone with an interest in it. "Certainly Clyde is comfortable and happy creating what he wants to create and knowing that people appreciate it," says Saslow. "I think he's very lucky to have a good friend like Vernon who puts himself out to assist him. He's very lucky. Otherwise, his work wouldn't be sold, collected, and appreciated."
Angel appears to believe his privacy protects his viability as an artist. "If I am seen, the magic will leave," he wrote to Pardee on a torn paper sack. "If I am seen, people will want more than I am....The artist would die."
"I am mad," Angel once wrote, "but I ain't dumb."
The strange case of Clyde Angel raises some questions about the outsider art business. What happens to the quality of intensely personal work after it finds acceptance? Can the artist's powers become tainted by money?
How important is the artist's story? Should it be a selling point? Many outsider artists have interesting personalities and colorful histories, and many do quality work that deserves attention. But would some of the art be as interesting--or as marketable--without the benefit of a back story?
Saslow says she looks for the "instinctellectual" in self-taught art--work that combines native talent with strong intentions; you can tell this art is vitally important to the people creating it. But when does the sincere promotion of emotionally sincere work become crass capitalization on an artist's pathology?
The product is all that matters to Carl Hammer, whose River North gallery has occupied a prominent place in the folk and outsider scene for more than two decades. He says the outsider art boom has been a reaction to the "excessive shams" of the mainstream art world--its focus on careerism, academics, movements, and theories. He says collectors are yearning for work showing "real honesty and frankness." Outsider art represents a return to innocence, a sort of raw authenticity, and that's helping to drive the market.
Yet Hammer says he's always judged outsider art by the same standards he uses to judge any other kind of art. He deals in the work of such celebrated outsiders as Darger, Godie, and Yoakum but also represents artists working within established traditions and trends, like Don Baum, Phyllis Bramson, and Hollis Sigler. Perhaps the difference between the two camps--outside and inside--has seemed less important in Chicago, where visual art since the 1940s has been deeply influenced by local collections of surrealist art, Jean Dubuffet's promotion of art brut by mental patients, and a widespread interest in folk, tribal, and ethnographic art.
Hammer says he isn't familiar enough with Angel's work to "make any grand pronouncements." But he does point out that in the outsider art business there's "a heavy, heavy reliance upon the extremism of the story and not consistently on the works of art." This has led to some self-conscious pandering to the marketplace. "There's a lot of wannabe outsiders," Hammer says. "When it's faked, you can see it too often--it's easy to fake rusticness, roughness, and crudity." When I tell him that a welder taught Angel how to use a blowtorch, Hammer responds, "So then he does have a tutor."
Savvy outsider art collectors, Hammer says, learn how to distinguish between the "honesty and purity" of a true outsider and the faux naif. They know an eccentric biography doesn't necessarily guarantee an artwork's value, though it's often easy to overlook standards of quality when artists are promoted on the basis of their colorful lives.
American Primitive Gallery's Aarne Anton says he was immediately drawn to Angel's artwork, and he realized the artist's story added to its allure. "The nature of Clyde's past, and why he prefers to be anonymous and in hiding, was never a problem to me--it gets people interested," he says. "But my ultimate feeling is the appreciation of it as remarkable art doesn't hinge on the story, nor on knowing everything about Clyde Angel's life. If the artwork isn't good, no matter how good the story, nothing's going to happen. People would respond to it without anything being said. Then it becomes that much more interesting and meaningful" when the story is known.
One of Hammer's star artists, Henry Darger, is a case in point. Over the last several years, Darger's remarkable and often disturbing work--which was never intended to be seen by others--has received widespread national exposure as well as glowing critical praise. His fantastically bizarre inner life has undoubtedly magnified interest.
Darger, who as a child was diagnosed as "feebleminded," eked out a living as a hospital custodian. He lived and worked in virtual seclusion for over 40 years in a north-side rooming house owned by Nathan Lerner, the well-known photographer and a dean at the Institute of Design. In late 1972 Lerner took Darger to a hospital and while cleaning out the dying man's debris-filled room discovered the secret artistic and literary work of a lifetime. The centerpiece was a 12-volume, 19,000-page saga (typed single-spaced on legal paper) titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The epic included over 300 pencil-and-watercolor collages on construction paper; about 100 of these were large scrolls, many painted on both sides. Some depicted battle scenes of incredible carnage and featured naked little girls--with male genitalia. Days before Darger died, in 1973, Lerner asked him what he should do with the artwork. Darger told him to do as he pleased.
But stewardship of the work presented Lerner with a problem. On one hand, he wanted to give Darger's art the serious attention he felt it deserved; on the other, exhibiting it would require removing the brilliantly colored collages from their narrative context and subjecting the personal (and provocative) pieces to public scrutiny. Reluctantly, Lerner decided to let the work be seen, though some purists still insist the artwork should never have been removed from Darger's handbound volumes.
The first exhibit of Darger's work was at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1977. Two years later, the work was featured in the "Outsider Art in Chicago" show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Soon it was seen by museumgoers in New York and Europe. In the late 70s Lerner started consigning pieces to dealer Phyllis Kind, who had galleries here and in New York. She priced them between $1,500 and $3,000 through the mid-80s, but they rarely sold. Lerner carefully doled out work as Darger's legend grew, and prices steadily rose. Over the years Lerner, who died in 1998, also sold or donated pieces to museums. Lerner's wife, Kiyoko, now controls Darger's legacy, though Hammer has had access to the collection since 1994.
In recent years Darger has been riding a crest of recognition and acclaim he couldn't possibly have anticipated. A major traveling retrospective, "Henry Darger: The Unreality of Being," was mounted by the University of Iowa Museum of Art in early 1996. The exhibit's 63 works were lent either by Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner or by Kiyoko Lerner alone. When the show arrived at the Museum of American Folk Art a year later, it drew rapturous reviews from Time, the New York Times, the Village Voice, and the Nation, among other publications; some proclaimed it a significant contribution to 20th-century art. The exhibit ended its run at the Chicago Cultural Center in the spring of 1998. Hammer is now able to charge more than $30,000 for Darger's double-sided scrolls.
Darger's work, Hammer says, "is the purest expression of artwork you can imagine, and that's a key aspect of its acceptance. It's a body of work that reflects on our private dreams and touches our own dark side, and that's why we're fascinated."
Darger didn't work with scavenged materials, except for what he cut out of newspapers and magazines. But many outsider artists, Clyde Angel included, collect discarded objects and form them into art, or something like it. The creators are sometimes anonymous--they're tramps or street people or prisoners or whimsical artisans. Others may have never considered themselves artists, or what they were doing artmaking. The objects became "art" only when somebody discovered them, when somebody decided to sell and to buy them. If Nathan Lerner had not been an artist himself, Darger's work could easily have wound up in a Dumpster.
Take the example of Emery Blagdon. An eighth-grade dropout and former hobo, Blagdon constructed more than 600 assemblages between 1956 and 1984 in a shed on his farm in Nebraska's Sand Hills. These fantastical hanging and freestanding sculptures--made of wire, aluminum, wood, ribbons, beads, plastic, tinfoil, and other detritus, all strung together with strands of tiny Christmas lights--were the functioning components of a vast device. Blagdon's parents and three of his five siblings had died of cancer, and Blagdon believed illness could be cured through exposure to the electromagnetic aura that he claimed emanated from these contraptions. Neighbors came to be treated for ailments like arthritis; many reported recovery. "A scientist could explain this," Blagdon once said. "I just know that it works."
Blagdon reportedly realized the "healing machines" were pretty, but he never intended them to be viewed as art. After he died in 1986 they were preserved by Dan Dryden, a local pharmacist and friend who became the official curator of Blagdon's work. Twelve years after his death, Blagdon entered the folk canon when his machines were exhibited in the epochal "Self-Taught Artists of the Twentieth Century." The 800-square-foot shed was reconstructed as a piece of installation art (complete with dirt floor and cricket sounds). The healing machines were displayed inside, in an approximation of their original arrangement. Some critics were awed, but the simulation made others uncomfortable: Blagdon's lifework had been removed from its context in a way that they felt distorted and trivialized his achievement.
Or consider the case of the Philadelphia Wireman, a celebrated outsider artist of whom absolutely nothing is known. Lacking a personal history, the artist is reduced to his objects, which form one of the more significant discoveries of outsider art in the United States. Driving down a central Philadelphia side street late one night in 1982, a graphic designer spotted a pile of cardboard boxes. It was trash night. The boxes contained some 1,200 wire assemblages. Rubber bands and tape bound together a variety of castoffs--fast food packaging, batteries, pens, reflectors, nuts and bolts, umbrella parts, nails, foil, coins, toys, watches, eyeglasses, tools, and jewelry. The elements were wrapped with heavy-gauge wire. The work was presumed to be that of a male because of the strength it would have taken to manipulate the wire. Most of the pieces resembled human and animal figures.
The designer took the boxes home and later brought "about a thousand" of the assemblages to Philadelphia's Janet Fleisher Gallery, according to a spokesman for what's now called the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery. The pieces, says a gallery fact sheet, "are examples of work created to fulfill the shamanistic needs of alternative religions in American culture. The works have been compared to sculpture from classical antiquity and native American medicine bundles...though their origin and purpose is unknown." The gallery still carries a few hundred pieces. Their prices range from $350 to $1,800.
The Clyde Angel story goes like this:
He was born August 31, 1957, on Beaver Island, just off the southern end of Clinton, Iowa, in the Mississippi River. The date comes from the Rosenaks' guide; other sources are more vague (information provided by Saslow Gallery says "around 1957"). In a 1993 note Angel declared: "I am Clyde Angel. Born on Beaver Island. Im a traveler and an artist." He doesn't refer to his upbringing in any of his writings, at least not in the copies I've obtained.
Beaver Island is visible on most Iowa road maps, but it's usually not named. It's the largest island on the upper part of the river, nine miles in circumference and continuously inhabited until 30 years ago. Today most of Beaver Island is part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. A small portion at the northern tip is privately owned.
Art dealer Sherry Pardee did not return phone calls for this story, but according to information she provided for the Intuit article--the primary text on the artist's life--Angel is believed to have been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. He spent most of his time in a facility he refers to as "X" in total isolation, and in the mid-90s he was still taking medication for his illness.
Angel, however, was not an idle patient. He told Pardee he always knew how to draw but developed a finger-painting technique while institutionalized. Angel's paintings--made with "recycled paints he found in the back of a workshed," according to the Intuit article--aren't as well-known as his sculptures.
He had also become familiar with great works of literature. "I read books from way back," Angel wrote to Pardee. "From a place X from a time when I couldnt walk. Couldnt move couldnt see the sky the tree the moon the city the river. I was locked in. I read quantum reality. I read not to fast but I read steady. I member I member well. I read these thangs--The Sacred and the Profane. Man and His Symbols. Julius Caesar. I Ching. Bible. Koran. Tora. Cabala. The Happy Prince. Daughter of Samurai. Pelleas and Melisande. And lots more."
In other letters to Pardee, Angel referred to his struggle with mental illness. "Tribulations of the past time have been many," he wrote. "Its been a hard rough rocky road. Fears have risen and subsided just like the stars and the sun, moon. But this all member time now. I member good. The embarrassment. But today seems so exillerating. I feel so strong I could go beyond all this." In another note he wrote: "I want to go inside a clinic and get my brain fitted right, perfect. I want get to a laboratory and get cloned a hundred fold." And: "My night is not your night. My blue is not your blue. The sky I walk under is not a all walkers sky."
Once released from X--the date is uncertain--Angel began wandering the highways and back roads of Iowa, "somewhere between the calm of the forest and the clamor of the city," according to the Intuit story. He lives in the woods most of the year but has a "warm room" somewhere during winter months.
Angel's writings from the road reflect a love of nature and travel. Some are mundane ramblings about interstates, truck stops, hitching rides, and walking; others are almost mystically romantic in the Wordsworthian sense. "The snow on the hill laying down," says one note. "The moon on the rise comming still. A slow soft river breeze. Moving through the trees. Im on the island tonight." Another says: "I sing and hum along with the rhythm of the big dance." And: "All worlds are here. All worlds are now. Everything is possibal."
He can be whimsical: "Sometimes I feel like Im living inside a snowglobe." "Dont leave your choclate in the sun. Theyll melt and they wont be good for anyone." "Life is an Etch-O-Sketch. Every so often you gots to twist the knobs."
American Primitive's Aarne Anton is almost as captivated with Angel's notes as he is with the artwork. "For me, a picture of the person and his mental instability emerges from the writing," Anton says. "He has a real sense of poetry. It has a naive quality to it, but on the other hand it's sophisticated and sensitive to the world. It alludes to his hidden past, and in bits and pieces the past starts taking shape. Psychologists would be floored by how much they could diagnose in this person."
At some point Angel started collecting scrap metal, which he hauled in a satchel back to his "private forest." The scrap has a spiritual significance. As he's written in a memo pad: "The steel I find on the road is magical. And I am the mystic who recognizes this and I am the mystic who makes the steel something it was not. As the road is free there to go that line is stretched out before me I'll go, with no backthoughts. To move along the highway like an outlaw and steel away the metal to make my art."
It's not known when Angel met the unnamed welder, though the earliest documented sculpture I could find is dated "ca. 1990." The Intuit article picks up the story:
"The welder, who lives in a small town, recalled how he was working one day when he sensed someone watching him. It was Clyde. The welder saw the same man several days later. They acknowledged each other. Another time they chatted briefly. During a later meeting the welder talked about his work and showed Clyde how he welds. Clyde was fascinated. The welder offered to let Clyde give it a try. Clyde was entranced and excited by the notion of forming designs out of metal pieces. As time went on, the good-natured welder agreed to let Clyde bring in some of his own metal scraps and weld them into rough sculptures. Clyde did just that....He showed a proficiency with the welding tools, and the welder could see he had the eye of an artist as well. As their relationship grew, so did the ever-expanding collection of Clyde's artworks."
As the sculptures piled up in the workshop, the welder contacted Pardee. She took one look at the sculptures and realized she'd found a unique outsider artist. "There's something wonderfully pure about him," she said in the Intuit story. "His work is so open, and there's an intensity to it....Some of his things are very playful. Others are more spiritual. He has a wonderful way of seeing things in metal to make them work for his sculptures....His work started selling immediately. People were immediately intrigued and hooked."
According to the catalog for the exhibit "Outsider and Folk Art From Chicago Collections" at the Halle Saint Pierre in Paris, it took months of patient effort for Pardee to become Angel's friend and agent. The Intuit article said he was at first "cautious and guarded," but over time he opened up to her in the series of dispatches. He sent her photographs he had taken with an inexpensive camera that he received from a car dealer. As he explained in a letter, anyone test driving a Toyota truck was given a camera; the dealer wouldn't let Angel drive the truck because he didn't have a license, but the "nice man" gave him the camera anyway. Angel told her he wanted to own a Winnebago motor home.
Pardee gave Angel a video camera in 1994, and he returned with two short videos, Still Free and Small Animal Hospital. (There are two versions of Still Free; one has a few extra scenes.) The videos are, for the most part, amateurish and uneventful; if they hold any interest at all, it's because they were made by a mysterious figure who refuses to be photographed. Angel tapes disconnected scenes with a shaky handheld camera in an attempt to document his wanderings through a variety of urban, rural, and sylvan settings, presumably in Iowa. The long version of Still Free, which runs about 25 minutes, shows the interior of a cluttered garagelike workshop; the camera zooms in on a pile of rusted metal scraps, and then on a finished sculpture. This scene is not included in the ten-minute version. Small Animal Hospital--which has little to do with its title--was screened in Chicago as part of Intuit's annual Reel-A-Thon festival in 1995.
Not surprisingly, the videos provide few clues to Angel's identity. His presence is manifested in unrevealing ways: whistling to a bird perched on a telephone wire; waving at his shadow; using broken tree branches to bang on an oil drum, his hands just beyond the view of the stationary camera. At no time is any part of his body glimpsed. The videos seem calculated only to perpetuate the myth and mystery of Clyde Angel.
In 1994, Pardee approached Intuit editor Cleo Wilson about running a story on Angel. Wilson told Pardee she couldn't write the article because she was the artist's dealer. "So she hired me," says Edward Husar, a staff reporter for the Quincy Herald Whig in Quincy, Illinois. "She thought it would help promote sales. I worked through Sherry--she's met him many times." Husar says he asked to meet the artist too. "She ran it by Clyde, but he didn't want to talk to anyone. I guess he lives in the woods." The 2,000-word article, "Clyde Angel: After All This Time Still Free," featured four reproductions of his work.
"Since some of his work started selling around the country," Husar wrote, "Clyde's courage and self-esteem have risen somewhat, but he still shies away from people and becomes anxious whenever it is suggested that he meet someone."
American Primitive was the first major gallery to show Angel's sculptures. "My involvement with Clyde Angel's work came exclusively through Sherry Pardee," says Anton. "She showed me some of the work and got me interested in the art and the writings." By 1994 the gallery had amassed a considerable collection. He sold some pieces on consignment, and others he owned outright, bought from collectors and auctions. Anton says he saw Pardee at the Outsider Art Fair in 1995, around the same time the Intuit story came out. The weekend sales convention is held at the Puck Building in New York every January. He talked to her about mounting a solo exhibit of Angel's work within the next few months. She agreed to consign more pieces.
But it wasn't to be. "Shortly after the fair, she couldn't provide me with work for the one-person show," Anton recalls. "She really didn't have that much material anyway. Basically, she backed out. Not long after, I heard that she and Clyde had broken off their working relationship, and I had to return the stuff on consignment--I had to stop dealing....It was on very short notice, and it left a bad taste in my mouth." Anton says he has heard rumors about what caused the rupture but isn't "at liberty to discuss them." He tells me, however, "Money can destroy any friendship." Anton continued to sell the work he had acquired. "I lost track of Clyde Angel, lost my contact," he says. "I was very disappointed."
Around 1996 a new player came on the scene. Vernon Willits offered Angel's work to the Judy Saslow Gallery.
I'd brought up Willits's name during my initial conversation with Anton in the fall of 1998, and it was the first Anton had heard of him. He speculated Willits might be the "Skip" or "Skippy," whom Angel sometimes mentioned in letters. Anton had heard Skip was a fireman and artist. Recently Anton told me he got a call from Willits shortly after our conversation, and the two agreed to a new consignment deal. Anton said he'd told Willits I'd called, but that Willits "didn't want to talk to the press."
Anton says he's given some thought to the ethics of marketing the work of a mentally ill hobo. "For some people it raises questions and makes them uncomfortable," he says. "Some collectors are awkward and uncomfortable with not being able to see or meet Clyde. Some people have even questioned his existence."
Anton doesn't have the same doubts. "There's a lot about his life we don't know," he concedes, but the story is "acceptable and believable" because his wife, Tina, met similar people while operating art programs for the homeless in New York. "Numbers of people were receptive to having their art shown and sold. But not all were receptive to being interviewed and photographed, or identified by the outside world. For whatever reasons, they wanted to maintain an anonymity. You have that in the literary world as well, with authors using pen names.
"Clyde exists because of his art," Anton adds. "Just because you don't want to be known or meet people doesn't negate your existence. There is a consistent body of work." Angel's wanting to remain anonymous "is a perfectly legitimate desire, given that the art world can be corrupt and nasty."
Tina Anton is now director of the Haverstraw Arts Alliance in Haverstraw, New York, where she recently curated an exhibit titled "Material Resurrection: Art Created From Recycled Materials." The show is on view at the alliance's gallery through May 13 and includes work by Angel. In late February, Willits sent the Antons a thank-you note.
Who is Clyde Angel? "It started out as a mystery, and it's still a mystery," muses Anton. "It's a greater mystery even now because there's a divergence of possibilities and views that people have."
When Willits called me after I'd left my number with Judy Saslow about two years ago, I asked him if I could come out to Iowa and talk to Angel. I told him I had interviewed a lot of artists and I'd be extraordinarily sensitive given Angel's situation. Willits told me it wasn't possible--Clyde would never consent to it. He said he'd told Clyde meeting with reporters would clear up some of the rumors about him. You mean, I asked, whether he even existed? Willits said yes. But Clyde didn't want to meet anyone, he said; he only wanted to be seen through his art. I asked Willits if I could visit his workshop--I just assumed he was the welder in the Intuit story. He said I was welcome to come, but he never knew when Clyde would show up. I could be waiting a long time.
Willits sent some information on Angel and wished me luck on the story. I kept his Davenport address and phone number. In the following months I wrote Willits several letters and left phone messages. I wanted to set a date for an Iowa trip; if it wasn't possible to meet Angel, I'd still like to interview Willits. Last August I received a second letter from Willits. "It's great that you're doing a story on him but I'm not able to meet with you at this time," he wrote, directing me to Saslow Gallery. "They have an extensive portfolio of his work along with a detailed resume and bibliography that should give you all the info you need." I wrote again in the fall; then I tried calling. The phone had been disconnected, and calls were being taken at a new number. I dialed that number and left a message. I wrote to Willits at his old address in January, printing on the envelope "please forward if necessary." I wanted to travel to Iowa in late February or early March, so I asked Willits for an appointment. I received no response.
I rented a car and headed to Iowa. My plans were to find out what I could about Clyde Angel and his birthplace, Beaver Island, and then to try to locate Willits. I thought if the Clinton area was Angel's native soil I might find some answers there.
Some questions nagged me: Would an article simply contribute to the Angel mystique? Would I be complicit in his potential corruption? Would I be doing him a favor, or would the magic leave? Why didn't I just leave the poor guy alone?
I spent several balmy days in early March driving around southeastern Iowa. Out in the country--in rural and wooded areas between the cities and towns along the Mississippi River--I kept one eye on the side of the road, thinking maybe I'd see a man carrying a satchel and collecting scrap metal. I was prepared to stop, but I never saw one foot traveler, vagrant, or hitchhiker. Perhaps, I thought, Angel had finally got a driver's license and was now tooling around the state in a Winnebago.
You can't get much more midwest than Clinton, a city of some 30,000. The folks are friendly and helpful; the race is overwhelmingly white; the food is heartland hearty; the copper-towered county courthouse is postcard picturesque; the minor-league baseball stadium, home of the Class A Lumber Kings, is a real-life field of dreams; plumes of smoke come from an ADM corn-processing plant; 100-car freight trains rumble through periodically; and pickups outnumber SUVs two-to-one.
What distinguishes Clinton, settled in 1835, from many other midsize towns deep in the corn belt is its choice river location. The Mississippi is Clinton's main resource and reason for being. Lumber mills--processing pine logs from northern forests that were floated downriver in rafts--built the town's fortunes. By the late 19th century, Clinton was known as the midwest's sawmill capital; in the 1880s, according to a guide put out by the nonprofit Clinton Area Development Corporation, it had more millionaires per capita than any American city. As the lumber business declined, the city began to broaden its industrial base. More recently, it's expanded into entertainment and gambling: docked side by side are the Mississippi Belle Riverboat Casino and the City of Clinton Showboat.
Beaver Island is hard to miss as you head south from downtown on U.S. 30. The wild and wooded strip is separated from the mainland by a narrow slough, just beyond the factories that run along the waterfront for a good five miles, all the way down to a small town called Camanche. The main river is east of the island.
I went to the recorder's office in the Clinton County Administration Building and perused volumes of birth records. Three people whose surnames began with "A" were born in the county on August 31, 1957, but Clyde Angel wasn't one of them. There wasn't anyone with the last name of Clyde either. No one with those names was born in the county for the entire year, or the year before or the year after. A woman doing genealogical research told me it could've been a home birth, in which case I might find something in the "late-recorded" birth index. I looked for the names under 1957, but had no luck.
I asked the desk clerk at the motel if she knew anything about the history of Beaver Island. She didn't, but she knew someone who might be able to help. Bill Cramer, a member of a local history group, called and said he had a book I might find useful. I met him the next day at the downtown furniture store where he works. The book, called Beaver Island Remembered, was a spiral-bound self-published affair by Kathy Flippo, a onetime island resident. Cramer told me I could buy it at the downtown bookstore, but it was sold-out. I later obtained a copy at the school administration center.
According to Flippo, people lived on Beaver Island from 1840 to 1970. Settlers, mostly of Swedish and German descent, cleared the wooded land and built farms, small houses, cabins, a school, and a grocery store. Since there was no bridge to the mainland the island evolved into a tight-knit community; its population peaked at 128 during the Great Depression. Beaver Island was always plagued by high water. After the river's lock and dam system was completed in the late 30s, the water level rose and most of the lower land flooded. After the school closed in 1945, families moved off one by one. Now no one lives on the island year-round, but several farmhouses and cabins are still used as summer and weekend homes.
I called Flippo, a cemetery surveyor and historian in Morrison, Missouri, and asked if a Clyde Angel had been born on Beaver Island in or around 1957. Flippo's family had lived there until she was two years old, then moved to Clinton in the mid-40s. "But I went there daily up until 1960. I knew everything and everybody. Nobody was born on Beaver Island in 1957--I would've known about that." A Vera Angell she cited in the book once owned land on the island but never lived there; Angell never had kids. Flippo said by 1957 Beaver Island's community had dwindled to three families and a bachelor; she named them. "The Edfors family had 13 kids, but they were done hatching by 1953," she said. "How many people in '57 named their sons Clyde? This doesn't ring with me."
It didn't ring with many other people around Clinton either. How curious--a mentally ill, artistically inclined, junk-toting vagabond would have certainly attracted notice in these parts. Angel, of course, may have moved away from the area, but I figured he must have returned from time to time--he mentioned "the island" in his writings. But where did he go to do his welding?
No one named Clyde Angel was ever enrolled in the city school system, according to officials at the Clinton Community Schools District Administration Center. Perhaps he attended a private school. No one by that name had ever been in the Victory Center Rescue Mission, the town's homeless shelter. No one by that name appeared on a police database, according to Corporal Wehde of the Clinton Police Department. "There's not a lot of homeless people in Clinton," he said. "Sometimes they find people in the train yards, but not as much as they used to."
People told me that if someone from the area had been institutionalized in the 1960s, '70s, or '80s, they would have been admitted to Community Care in nearby Charlotte. Now a residential facility for the mentally ill and retarded, Community Care was the county home until 1983. But it had no record of a Clyde Angel, according to Ben Wright, the executive director.
I stopped by the River Arts Center in downtown Clinton. The two-year-old center, run by the Clinton Art Association, has galleries, workshops, and studios. I talked to two of the organization's founders, Gwen Nixon and Shirley Nissen. Neither had ever heard of Clyde Angel. The name Willits, though, sounded familiar; they said I should call Hortense Blake, another founder, whom they believed knew "everything." Blake hadn't heard of Angel but knew that Willits was a sculptor who'd done outdoor pieces in Davenport and Clinton. The Clinton sculpture was in front of the YMCA--I'd walked past it the day before. The welded steel piece depicts three rudimentary figures holding hands in a circle. A plaque said it was dedicated in 1983, but the artist wasn't identified. A closer look at the base revealed the word "Skip."
I drove the 35 miles south along the river to Davenport and the last address I had for Willits. Night was falling when I found the house amid a sprawl of malls, franchise stores, apartment complexes, and subdivisions over the hills two miles north of downtown. The small house had a small backyard and an unattached garage and was similar to many other homes in this residential enclave, which abutted part of a sinuous park system along Duck Creek.
I rang the doorbell. A 30-ish man approached from the back of the house and stood in the driveway. His arm was in a sling. Vern, he said, didn't live there anymore. Last summer he and his wife, Terri, a lawyer, had relocated up to Camanche. The man said Vern had taken an "early retirement" from the fire department because he was "starting to make money from his sculpture" and wanted to devote himself full-time to it. I asked him if Willits ever had his studio here, like in the garage, but he didn't think so. The man said the Willitses had bought a building and were renovating it so they could work out of their home.
The Willits family has roots in the area around Clinton and Camanche, according to county, city, and library records.
According to an obituary in the Clinton Herald, Clyde E. Willits was born in Ellsworth, Minnesota, in 1883 and relocated with his family to Clinton around 1900. He was a janitor and later building superintendent for the City National Bank. He and his wife, Clara, had four daughters and four sons. He died in 1950 and was buried in Memorial Park (now Clinton Lawn) cemetery.
One of Clyde's sons, Vernon Clyde Willits, was born in Clinton in 1920. He and his wife, Thelma, settled in Camanche after marrying in 1942. He worked most of his life as a welder for Climax Engineering Co. in Clinton, a manufacturer of internal combustion engines.
His son, Vernon Clyde Willits Jr., was born in Clinton on August 11, 1956, and grew up in Camanche. He is a fairly well-known sculptor in the region. According to information provided by the Davenport Museum of Art, "Skip" Willits began sculpting when he was ten years old, "using his uncle's work shop and taking advantage of his father's occupation of welding." He received an associates of arts degree in 1976 from Mount Saint Clare College, a Franciscan liberal arts school in Clinton. He completed his bachelor's degree two years later at Western Illinois University, concentrating on art education with a studio emphasis.
By 1981, Willits was living in Davenport and working for the city's fire department. (One of Angel's notes says, "There's nothing like a good fire fight at -20 to make you feel immortal.") He started to create sculptures from welded steel. "The first work he produced concentrated on faces, gradually depicting the entire human form or complete abstractions," states an unpublished 1989 manuscript by Julie Higby about Quad Cities public sculpture. (Higby's paper is in the archives of the Davenport Museum of Art.) By 1989 Willits had received some awards for his work and had four one-person shows.
In the late 80s, Willits began receiving commissions in the area. He worked with students from Eisenhower Elementary and then Williams Junior High in Davenport to produce two works in cold rolled steel that were installed on the schools' grounds. In 1989 The Dinosaur was erected outside Davenport's Lorenzen/Steffen Insurance Company. The Cor-Ten steel piece is 20 feet high and represents two years of work, perfecting what Willits called his "assembly required" concept. This technique, according to Higby's paper, involved "constructing permanent sculpture which can be disassembled and reassembled in other forms. A sort of owner participation sculpture." Some of these pieces are in private collections in the Quad Cities area.
Sheryl Haut, the librarian at the Davenport Museum of Art, remembered that at one time Willits had sold metal sculptures in the museum's gift shop. "They were small welded pieces, none over a foot high," she says. "It's been a number of years ago."
Willits moved to his last Davenport address by 1989. He has remained active as an artist, according to a spokesman for the Quad City Arts Council. In the last several years he's had exhibits at the council's Rock Island facility and at the Bettendorf, Iowa, public library. A little more than a year ago the library purchased one of the pieces, Collage of Community Faces. The ten-foot-long work, a diverse collection of 20 metal faces welded together, adorns a second-floor wall.
There were two listings for a Vernon Willits in the phone book. Both were in Camanche, but I couldn't tell if they were for the same person: one had an address and the other didn't. On a Saturday afternoon I stopped by the place with an address.
Camanche seems more like a residential neighborhood than a traditional town. About 4,500 people live there. Someone told me it was founded before Clinton, and I believed it. Camanche looks like a grown-up frontier settlement on the river; there's no identifiable downtown, and businesses and civic buildings are interspersed among modest houses. Most of the homes occupy wide lots.
The address was for an old storefront in a former business block; sure enough, there was a sign that said "Willits." It looked like there were living quarters upstairs. The curtains were drawn. The fenced-in backyard butted up against the side of a fire station. I knocked, but there was no answer. I asked a woman in the adjacent storefront if Vernon Willits, the sculptor, lived next door. No, she said, that's his parents. The sculptor lives over there, she said, pointing to a building kitty-corner from where we were standing. Willits had returned to his hometown, I thought.
He lived in another rehabbed storefront building. A red Nissan pickup was parked in front of an attached garage. There were two chairs and a couple small abstract steel sculptures set out front. I rang the doorbell--a dog barked--but no one answered. I returned a few hours later and, approaching the house from a different direction, saw several larger sculptures in the backyard poking out from behind a fence. Two or three of the sculptures were painted steel works. One looked like an Angel piece, but I couldn't be sure. I rang the bell, but no one answered.
I returned late Sunday afternoon. The pickup was still there. A woman came to the door. She turned out to be Terri Willits. I identified myself and said I was looking for Vernon, the sculptor. She stepped outside and closed the door behind her. She said Vern wasn't there and she didn't know when he'd be back. She was nice but wary. I told her I had called and written to Vernon about Clyde Angel, but I hadn't heard from him. She said they'd moved last summer. Was his studio here? I asked. "I'd never allow welding in this house," she said, adding that they were planning to convert the garage to a home office. Could I drop by Vernon's studio? "He doesn't want anybody to know where it is," she said. Would he be back tomorrow morning? She said she didn't know. I left my name and number and said I hoped to talk to Vernon soon.
I drove down to the Mississippi a few blocks away and parked the car in a lot for the library and museum. I walked out to the end of a public pier. The Big Muddy, nearly at land level, rolled languidly beneath the wooden planks. Looking upriver I could see the southern tip of Beaver Island about a mile in the distance. Perhaps, I thought, Angel was there now, "amoung the living and the green...running free. Still free."
Even if Vernon Willits could have put some pieces of the puzzle together for me, who knows if they would have been enough to complete the picture. If there were no Clyde Angel, then who is he?
For now he remained a walking shadow, an ethereal presence--an alchemist who transforms metal into gold, an artist whose work is forged from the earth and fire, a man who lived near the water and whose name comes from the air. Some people believe in angels; others don't. "So believing is not it," Clyde Angel has written. "Belief is something I accept. Some accept nothing."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell/courtesy Carl Hammer/Jon Blumb/Jerry Dahl.